Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two is One, One is None

That is the preparedness maxim.

Basically it means that if you only have one of something important, you can't count on it, because it WILL eventually break, fail, be lost, or stolen, or otherwise refuse or be unable to perform its required function.

Now, when writing here, I generally apply the maxim to the essentials; you know, water, toilet paper, guns, ammo, spare parts for guns and cars etc...

Today though, I'm going to talk about computers.

Ahhh computers, the boon and bane of our existence; and to many of us not much lower on the priority list than those things above (at least until TEOTWAWKI).

So why talk about the two is one maxim and computers today?

Well, how about because I'm irritated.

In the last few months (the current spate of failures started around November I think... maybe October), just at home, we've had the following (just what I can remember, and just in computers... probably more than that actually; plus the TV that died):
  • three hard drives just flat out fail
  • four power supplies die (one desktop, three laptop)
  • two monitors fail
  • three network interfaces fail
  • two cd-rom drives fail
  • several flash memory cards die
  • one PDA have it's charging port break off
  • one laptop just fail completely
  • Two routers die
I think you get the point.

Now of course that's a lot more failures than most people experience; but Mel and I both work at home, and run my business from my home office; so we've got a lot more computers than most (2 laptops active, two desktops active, a couple servers, a couple of testing machines, a couple old boxes as emergency backups/spares... a total of about 10 systems; and that's down from about 15 a few months ago).

We keep hardware around a long time; and we buy a fair bit of new hardware for various reasons; so most of the failures were either beyond their service life, or still in their infant mortality period. We also have very dirty power here, and up until recently we didn't have everything on power conditioners (which is what killed the TV, and which has most definitely been fixed). All that adds up to more failures per system than most experience;

Combined, more systems and more failures per system... well, do the math.

The problem is of course, when something fails here, it generally means I can't work until it gets fixed; and that can get expensive.

As to why I'm particularly irritated today; just in the last three days, the motherboard for the girls computer died, and I had a hard drive physically break while I was doing maintenance on my primary desktop.

My windows boot drive, to be more specific.

Importantly though, only a couple of these breakages caused me an immediate problem, other than some irritation and time wastage; because I followed the maxim. I have spare parts for all my systems, and backups for all my data.

Yes, I had to pick up 2 new monitors; but I was able to function until I did by using old monitors (I always keep a couple around as spares). They were ugly, but they worked.

I was able to recover my windows boot drive using my backup software, onto a spare hard drive (I always keep several around, because they are the most frequent failure in computers). Each of the other hard drive failures, I was also able to put in a spare, and recover from backups. I bought the hard drives on special at woot, 3x 500gb drives for $240 total; just to make sure I had spares around.

The last time woot had them on special, I picked up 3 targus labeled (actually made by iGo, a great company) universal laptop power supplies for $20 each; so when my OEM power supplies have died, I've been able to slot in an iGo until I could get a replacement (or actually in the case of two of them, not bother getting OEM replacements because the iGos are actually better).

It doesn't take a huge investment to make sure you can always keep functioning. A spare hard drive costs under $100 these days. A spare router is $60. A spare DVD burner is about $35. Desktop and laptop power supplies are generally $60 to $80 for either.

Oh and don't forget spare cables. Cables fail all the time, and it's generally cheap to have a couple spares around. You can probably get spare power, network, USB, IDE, and SATA cables for each of your computers for under $30.

Generally speaking, when I upgrade something, I keep the old parts around as spares. Then if I need to use the spare, I buy a replacement and keep cycling things through. If I don't get a spare that way, I just snag them whenever I can pick them up on sale or special etc...

Also, I strip out all the useful cables, screws, brackets, etc... from old computers and other electronics I'm going to toss. You wouldn't believe how often the whole "for want of a nail" scenario plays out; and those spare screws etc... have saved my butt.

The couple of breakages that DID cause me an immediate problem that I mentioned above?

Both were because I didn't follow the maxim.

About a nine months ago, my router died; and I replaced it with my spare. I then forgot to replace the spare. About two months ago, my previous spare router that I was then using as my primary router also died; because of a power surge.

I work over a VPN, and without an internet connection I can't work. I also start work before most stores are open, because my co-workers are all in other time zones. I ended up having to go out to super-walmart at midnight to go and overpay for a router (and not the one I would have bought if given a choice).

You can be damn sure that a couple days later I went out and bought the router I actually needed. Now the midnight walmart router is my spare.

The other one is the girls motherboard.

There are generally two pieces I don't have any spares of: motherboards, and processors.

Basically, I don't keep spares because failure is very rare, because they are quite expensive, and because they tend to go obsolete very quickly. It just doesn't make sense to have a spare mobo and proc around.

What I do always have around is at least one spare computer. With computers so cheap these days, $300 gets you all you really need for a backup box; and you can always have it be a multifunction system (make it a media server or an archive server for example).

If I need to get that computer FUNCTION back up and running quickly, I have all my data backed up, and all my operating systems imaged; and I can just load it up on one of the extra computers rather than try and do a rush repair on the broken one.

I talk about building backup and security systems here, and here.

Thankfully, the girls computer isn't exactly critical to my work; so it isn't really necessary to keep such spares around; and I don't need to clone it onto another machine; but it's still a pain in the butt.

Oh well, time to order a new motherboard.